Harrowing Of Hell
December 6, 2015

The Refining Fire of Families

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

I have been thinking a lot lately about where God is leading Epiphany. One thing I love about this place is that I don’t have to wait long for the Holy Spirit to show up.

I was talking with a parishioner the other day, and he said, “You know how we always say that ‘relationship is primary’? Well, if that is the case, then reconciliation is the key.”

And that struck me as profound and true and from God because relationship is primary, and reconciliation is key. It happens when we live comfortably with difference and when we naturally work together toward a common peace. And so, I suppose that is why we’ve been talking about reconciliation so much lately. It is the next, natural, logical thing to think about when relationship is primary.

That is certainly true in my life. I’ve been married for about 22 years, and Kristin and I have been together over 30 years. My marriage is the closest, deepest, most trusting relationship I have, and still it exists in this perpetual dance of reconciliation.

Reconciliation isn’t a one-shot deal. It is a way of being. It is a spiritual exercise.
It is a way of being refined over and over again until we become whole, holy, and fully ourselves. Reconciliation is a “refining fire” to use Malachi’s imagery from the Old Testament today, a fire which burns hottest with those we are closest to, which is often our family.

And so if we believe that relationship is primary, and if your family is anything like my family, then we step into and stand in and stay in the refining fire because we know reconciliation is the key to our being whole, holy, and fully ourselves.

The Gospel passage today calls us to consider family reconciliation in an interesting way. The first people we meet are Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipus, his brother Philip, and this guy Lysanias, who no one has heard of. And as I read through these names, I started wondering: Why are they in this passage? Who are they? What inspiration are they meant to ignite for us?

So I did a little research, and as best as I can tell they all come from messed up families. Tiberius’ mother dumped his father to marry Octavus, his father’s rival, who then became Caesar Augustus. Tiberius married Caesar Augustus’ daughter and was then adopted by Caesar Augustus, his father’s enemy, who made Tiberius heir to the throne. When Caesar Augustus died, Tiberius became Emperor and hated it. He was known as the “dark, reclusive, somber” leader.

And if you think that was a weird family set up, let me tell you about the sons of King Herod, Antipas and Philip—or should say the surviving sons of King Herod. He had killed one of his wives and two of his sons already. It was a complicated family. Herod Antipas married his brother Philip’s wife, Herodius. Philip in turn married Herodius’ daughter Salome. Not sure who Salome’s father was, but I’m hoping it wasn’t Philip.

And so with these messed up families in mind, I began to read today’s Gospel. And as I did, I was wondering what Christmas would have been like at the Tiberius household or the Herod household. Yes, I know there wasn’t Christmas back then, but work with me, because this is the time of year when families gather, and these gatherings have the capacity to unfurl dysfunction in not-too-surprising ways. Everyone’s family is a little dysfunctional, but the good news is, as far as I can tell, there are no families in this congregation as dysfunctional as Herod’s.

Today I want to invite us to think about families, consider them the refining fire by which we become whole, holy, and fully ourselves, and in that way move more deeply into relationship with God.

Reconciliation is the key, and reconciliation happens in that space where we allow the other to be who they are, without giving up who we are. Or in the language of reconciliation, we make space to live with difference. And from there we look for mutually transformative moments. Or in the language of reconciliation, we seek to create a common peace. Reconciliation happens when we live with difference and when we seek to create a common peace.

But here is the issue, at least for me: I have a hard time sustaining this by my own volition. I have a hard time getting out of the way of my own historical habits. In fact, I actually believe it is impossible to muscle our way to reconciliation, which is why God came into the world in the practical, incarnational person of Jesus.

Let me share with you how it sometimes works. It was the day after Halloween, and the choristers were about to sing at church. I heard them warming up in the choir room, so I decided to drop in, say hi, and see my son Desmond. He had spent the night at a friend’s house. In fact he and six other boys had spent the night at this friend’s house.

As I turned the corner in what is now a wonderfully straight hall, I saw Desmond through the open door. He was sitting there with his hoodie on. As I approached I could see that it looked like he had been in a fight with a bear. He had a black eye, and was a bit disheveled. “OK. OK. Steady. Steady. Steady,” I said to myself, knowing the kid was going to go up and sing in front of the church.

There I was in the refining fire. Luckily I had been there before. Margaret, my daughter, is 16 and I’ve seen her the morning after slumber parties, too—I mean, nothing quite this dramatic, but still. The refining fire of those experiences taught me something: to repress my impulse to pull my kid aside and say, “If you don’t sit up and look good and follow instructions, you are never, ever going to have another sleepover as long as you live.” I mean, what would people say? Really, can you imagine? That was my impulse, and it wasn’t streaming from the Holy Spirit—that is for sure.

So I said a prayer, and I wondered how Jesus might have acted if he was the dad of Desmond. And as I did, I remembered something I have learned over the years: that my impulses are usually wrong in these parenting situations. And that made me smile.

When I saw Desmond later in line with the Choristers about to go into the service, I said, “Wow, looks like you had fun last night,” at which he beamed through tired eyes and said, “Oh yeah. We didn’t sleep at all, and we had epic pillow fights.”

“Oh really? Well, I know you can make it through the service. You matter up there. Do a great job, and have fun.” And he did.

That was a Jesus moment for me, because Doyt would have acted differently. That was the opportunity of the refining fire of family: To be in it. To stay in it. To make the mistakes. To say I’m sorry. To say little prayers, often, and over time to develop habits that are patient, graceful, and loving.

Family is the place to practice being the person Jesus would be if he were you or me in your family or my family. If the goal is to get family right, then I might have acted differently. But the gift of family, the refining fire of family, is to let it work on us, and not try to get it to work the way we want it to work.

Remember last Sunday when we talked about how terrorists hold us captive when we set ourselves and our survival as the highest best good? Well, it is not all that different with family. If we hold our families as our highest best good, then they hold us captive, and we become inured and insulated from the refining fire of transforming reconciliation.

And so as family time intensifies this holiday season, appreciate the refining fire that you find yourselves in and celebrate this as a chance to be formed and transformed more and more into the image Jesus would portray in your family if he were you.

I’d like to conclude by returning to Luke’s Gospel. It begins with a list of super dysfunctional families, but then moves to Jesus, the Son of God, who came to reconcile us with God and to articulate for us why this reconciliation with God is the highest, best good. For when we are in reconciled relationship with God, when we consider God and set God as the highest, best good, then the landscape of life changes, and it becomes easier to move around. Then the hills are lower, the valleys filled in, and the rough places plain.

So during this Advent season as we look toward the birth of Jesus and the manner by which he reconciles us to God; consider two things:

  1. How and when and how often you pray for your family. Pray for your family more.
  2. And how you honor and celebrate your family as the warm, yet refining fire that is meant to bring you into deeper relationship with God and helo you become more whole and holy and fully the person God created you to be.

My prayer this Advent is for reconciliation, wherever that needs to happen and with whomever that needs to happen. After all, when relationship is primary, reconciliation is key.